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Moldova, sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, eyes Russia's actions

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Russia's war on Ukraine has created a lot of anxiety in other former Soviet republics. Perhaps the most vulnerable is a small country you usually don't hear a lot about, Moldova. Moldova is not in NATO. It is not in the European Union. And it has had Russian troops inside its territory for decades. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in Moldova. And he joins us now. Good morning, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more about this country where you have been traveling and assessing things.

LANGFITT: Yeah. It's sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine. Of course, Romania is a NATO and EU country. Moldova is a former Soviet republic. And I'm just back from an area, Rachel, that I think explains a big reason why Moldovans have been so alarmed by the war just over the border in Ukraine. It's an area called Transnistria. It's a part of Moldova. But it's mostly Russian-speaking. It's a separatist region where Russia has stationed troops since the breakup of the Soviet Union. And Russia essentially has effective control there. This morning, I passed through a checkpoint with Russian, Moldovan and Transnistrian soldiers, passed two Russian armored personnel carriers. They were covered in tarps.

Now, Russia has between 15 to 1,800 Russian troops there. There are 8 to 10,000 Transnistrian troops. They're not well-trained. They do have tanks. It's been very peaceful for a very long time. But altogether, this is a bigger, better armed force than the Moldovan army. And so when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, many here in Moldova were really frightened. Some people actually just packed their bags and took off. And the concern was that Russia might eventually send more troops into Transnistria and put pressure on the government here, which is very pro-European and just recently applied to get into the EU.

MARTIN: So now we're a month in to Russia's war in Ukraine. Do people in Moldova still have that fear of being a Russian target?

LANGFITT: Their calmer now about it, but not because they trust President Putin. It's because the Russians have been doing, frankly, so badly on the battlefield just across the border. But they're still watching the war very closely. To put this in some context, when Russia fired missiles early on, on the first day of the war, you could hear them over here in Moldova. And I think there was this big realization of just how vulnerable this little, small country is. I was speaking to a guy named Iulian Groza. He runs the Institute for European Policies and Reforms. It's a think tank here. And he says, you know, the current security system here in Europe that's built around NATO membership and EU membership just doesn't protect countries like his.

IULIAN GROZA: It doesn't work because it has some limitations. So what we definitely will see, and we already look - I mean, seeing that - we will see a reset of the security setup in Europe in the next years to come, because countries like Ukraine, Moldova or other countries that feel themselves attacked through conventional and unconventional war by Russia needs guarantees, security guarantees.

MARTIN: So what's that reset going to look like, Frank?

LANGFITT: Well, I don't know. That's a great question. And I'm not - I don't have a clear answer just yet. Groza said they would be looking here maybe for EU support through - from, you know, getting weapons, military training, medical equipment to build up this very small military here, which, in fact, does not have tanks. It's not clear how this is going to go over in Brussels. And remember, Moldova is still officially neutral. And one of the reasons it does that is not to provoke the Russians more. Now, as I was saying, just after the war began, Moldova applied to join the European Union, as did the former Soviet republic of Georgia and Ukraine. And so you can get a sense there that they're looking for help, you know, to the West.

MARTIN: Right, which is exactly the opposite of what Vladimir Putin wants to happen.

LANGFITT: Exactly. I mean, what he wants is Ukraine and Moldova, former parts of the Soviet Union, to be neutral or part of a Russian sphere of influence a buffer against the democratic Western Europe, NATO, EU and ultimately the U.S. And what we're seeing is the war is actually driving them literally in the opposite direction. And I got to say, Rachel, having covered the war in Ukraine, visiting NATO and the EU recently, now in Moldova, you really can feel the political landscape of Europe shifting in real time.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting from Moldova. Thank you so much, Frank.

LANGFITT: Good to talk, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.